Do Smart Building Certifications Measure Up?

6 min read

The advent of certifications brings new opportunity and new questions for operators.

COVID has underscored the value of connected buildings. Lightning-quick Internet, top-notch cell phone reception and digitally enabled tools are essential in an age when much work and school is undertaken from home. With so much riding on smart technology, many building managers have sought ways to certify and promote superior connectivity.

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“Multifamily landlords in particular have been setting out to prioritize connectivity and ensure a higher level of service and superior experience,” said Kevin Donnelly, vice president, government affairs at the National Multifamily Housing Council. “To achieve this, they need to know the buildings they are investing in can provide for renters today and will also deliver the technology renters will be using tomorrow.”

Benchmarking and certifying sustainability are established practices for operations. Though the idea of certifying technology performance is less widespread, it is gaining significant traction through a variety of initiatives. Operators must weigh whether participating in the programs will improve the resident experience and provide a competitive advantage.

Validation matters

Although smart thermostats have become selling points for some multifamily building residents, and residents generally appreciate having sophisticated technology in general, most are unaware of smart building certifications, experts say. Savvier renters may recognize LEED placards when entering a building, but because smart building certifications are so new, most residents typically don’t recognize them, reported Joe Alquist, a vice president at Bright Power, a New York City-based energy efficiency consultant.

Yet raising the standard for smart building performance—and making it a selling point—is a undoubtedly a worthy goal, given the disruption and expense created by inadequate connectivity. Downtimes can impact multiple aspects of residents’ lives: health, well-being, work and productivity. Connectivity affects 86 percent of North American renters and homeowners, according to a survey commissioned by WiredScore, perhaps the best-known standard for smart-building certification.

The study, released in June to coincide with the launch of WiredScore’s new multifamily smart building certification, found that residents experience 20 service disruptions monthly. Making up for inadequate service with extra mobile data costs the average household $337 annually, the survey found. More than four in five respondents (84 percent) consider Wi-Fi service to be a standard apartment feature, the research found.

Smart buildings can benefit from reduced operating costs, yielding greater income for multifamily owners and investors, and more appeal for residents, expert say.

A smart building certification might encompass smart waste, lighting and shading controls, water efficiency, leak detectors and other controls integrated throughout the building to deliver greater efficiency.

“What matters most is validation, to ensure these investments are integrated into the asset,” said Etienne Cadestin, founder & CEO of Longevity Partners, an energy and sustainability consultancy with U.S. headquarters in Austin, Texas.

“Nowadays, it’s not enough to say how good you are. You have to prove it, and certification is a good way to have that third-party validation that what you say is in your building is actually there,” he added.

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Smart Tech Meets Wellness

A program started this past spring could provide a milestone on the road to broader smart building certifications. In April, Building Owners and Managers (BOMA) International of Canada launched a pilot certification program under the auspices of BOMA BEST, a nationwide sustainability certification program. The program’s stated goal is to both establish a global benchmark for smart building performance and provide a building management tool. And in a telling corollary, the program also rates properties on how technology enhances wellness, sustainability and other aspects of the end user’s experience.

BOMA BEST defines smart buildings as encompassing two main areas. On the operations side, the technology is intended to guide improved decision-making through analytics and automation.

Six indicators will comprise the rating: artificial intelligence and analytics; physical security and cybersecurity; data management; connectivity; health and well-being; and sustainability. The pilot encompasses properties in San Antonio as well as a half-dozen of Canada’s largest cities: Toronto, Mississauga, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary.

In addition to a variety of large downtown office properties, participating buildings also include a large Toronto residential community. The Livmore Bay & Gerrard is a 43-story, 595-unit high-end community completed in 2019 by GWL Realty Advisors. Besides GWL Realty, participants in the pilot include Avison Young, BentallGreenOak, Ivanhoé Cambridge and USAA Real Estate.

“We want to ensure that this program is for owners by owners and identify those elements that deliver real and communicable value to the operators and occupants, rather than simply putting a plaque on the wall,” said Thanos Lambrinos, vice president of smart building technology and digital innovation at QuadReal & chair of the BOMA BEST Smart Buildings Advisory Council.

Though office buildings comprise most of the participants in the pilot project, Lambrinos indicated that a standard for multifamily properties is also likely to emerge. The ultimate goal would be “encouraging technology deployment that improves efficiency, enhances sustainability, increases security, promotes health and wellness, and create a differentiated experience and quality of life for those who live in the buildings.”

Any certification helping market high-performance technologies, smart building systems and energy efficiency is a step in the right direction, noted Ahlquist. He’s quick to add that the tangible impact of certifications is still being assessed.

“From an energy perspective, a building owner or operator should be able to see the results that a smart building can achieve in any already-available energy certification and score, including Passive House, Enterprise Green Communities, LEED and ENERGY STAR,” Ahquist said. “However, if a smart building is not able to achieve those certifications [indicating it] is energy efficient and high-performing, any smart building certification will not mean much on its own.”

New builds vs. retrofits

How does a building qualify for certification? It depends on ownerships’ goals. Some certifications are aimed at new developments, awarding certifications on how the building was set up to be smart once occupied. Others are focused on existing buildings that integrated smart building technologies after they were occupied. “To achieve that certification, the building will be judged on how optimally it is operating,” he added.

As of now, no Bright Power clients have asked about smart building certificates or seemed aware of them, he noted. The only time the organization came close to a smart building certification was via a specific funding program, not as a sought-after certification.

The coming years will see launches of additional smart building certifications. Of interest will be how or whether smart building certifications will work to partner with high-performance and green building certifications, Ahlquist said.

Smart monitoring and controls systems used to achieve smart building certifications will benefit net operating income and make operations more efficient, he contends. “For now, the certification itself won’t do much, other than giving building owners a pat on the back,” Ahlquist concluded.

Read the November 2021 issue of MHN.

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